Literary Analysis: Great Falls by Richard Ford (Short Story)

The short story “Great Falls” by Richard Ford, centers around the discovery of a mother’s infidelity, and her subsequent departure. The events of the story play out between the mother and father, but are passively witnessed by the main character, their son Jackie. This framing device imparts the reader with the sense that rather than reading a story they are watching a play unfold.

Though the crucial event at work in the story is the adultery, this act is not meant to evoke thoughts of morality or blame, but simply provides a backdrop for the exploration of universal themes relating to coming of age. While Jackie's reaction from the family drama borders on a disturbing detachment or dissociation, he is nonetheless experiencing a crucial rite of passage. Confronted with issues of coming of age through encountering adult sexuality, Jackie comes to reevaluate the notion of parental authority, and comes to terms with truths relating to his own identity and humanity, albeit in a very sudden and dramatic manner. As the story unfolds, Jackie leaves the protected world of childhood, to realize that he, like the other characters, are essentially alone, that each has his own story, his own truth to be realized.

"Great Falls" is part of the Rock Springs story collection, set in Montana.
"Great Falls" is part of the Rock Springs story collection, set in Montana. | Source

Major Metaphors: Light and Darkness

“Great Falls” is a story is about a series of events. These events are related by Jackie in flashback form, from many years later. The majority of the story takes place at night, in darkness. Each event is illuminated by artificial light, as if the characters are playing their parts a stage, before retreating back into the wings. When the scene changes to the next day in the latter half of the story, it is “a gray day….the mountains to the east of town…obscured by a low sky…some driver’s had their lights on though it was only two o’clock in the afternoon.”

Reference to lights are constant throughout the story. They are used to highlight important moments, and to emphasize the feeling that the tale is unfolding as if under a spotlight. Despite the fact that the events of the story are presented in a matter-of-fact manner, almost devoid of emotion, it is apparent, though left largely unstated, that emotions are boiling just under the surface. Ford writes with careful deliberation; one gets the sense that no detail is included arbitrarily. Every occurrence or mention is significant, giving texture and feeling to what can appear at first glance to be a mere recounting of events, a simplistic observation by a child too young to really understand what he is witnessing.

The Opening Act: Innocence Shaken

The events of the story can be viewed as play in three acts: Act One contains character introduction, and the events leading up to the discovery of the adultery, and Act Two contains the inevitable confrontation ending in the mother’s departure. Act Three takes place in the events of the next day, wherein the reader gains understanding into the scenario that has played out and the transformation of the character of Jackie.

In the first act, we meet the characters of Jackie and his father. His mother is introduced but remains offstage. Though Ford warns at the outset that “this is not a happy story,” we are at first presented with a scene of quintessential rural Americana. We see the type of man Jackie’s father is, an outdoorsman, an expert hunter and fisher, and witness a rather traditional scene of father-son bonding in this type of rural American setting. The father is teaching Jackie how to hunt, he offers him a sip of whiskey and asks him about girls, he is essentially showing him how to be a man as well.

We slowly begin to understand that this is not a typical story of male bonding, as it is subtly alluded to that all is not well between the father and mother. The father tells Jackie that his mother once said “No one ever dies of a broken heart,” and we see, though we have not yet met her, that she is a broken-hearted woman, and probably has been so for a long time. It has been revealed that the father is a man that “did not know limits,” hunting and fishing from sunup into the night. Though Jackie is included in these frequent absence, it appears that the mother is not, and we can infer that she likely has lonely existence behind in the home.

Jackie notices that his father seems” odd,” “nervous.” On the way home the dad comments on a neighbor’s farm, saying that the neighbor has waited too long to harvest his wheat, and will lose it to the cold. The fact that the father “knew nothing about farming” implies that perhaps it is not the field that he is talking about, but his wife, too long neglected and left in the cold of isolation.

Act Two: The Rite of Passage

The main drama unfolds in the second Act. Jackie’s rite of passage is suddenly elevated to something greater than just the bonding between a man and his son. From a subtle insinuation of early awareness of the opposite sex, Jackie is now violently confronted with issues of sexuality.

The mother's much younger lover, Woody, becomes the mirroring image of Jackie. Woody, while a childlike character like Jackie, does possess some obvious knowledge that Jackie is still simply too young to understand. Jackie expresses some curiosity at this fact, as well as an awareness of this situation. “I wondered what Woody knew that I didn’t,” he muses. “He and I were not so far apart in age…But Woody was one thing, and I was another.”

In witnessing the explosive scene between the infurated father and the calmer figures of Woody and his mother, Jackie is witnessing something very adult. While the adult nature of the scene is in an emotional rather than graphic context, it is still well beyond the comprehension level of the young Jackie.

In the first act, Jackie’s father has asked him whether he is concerned about girls, or sex, and Jackie answers by saying that what he worries about is that his parents will die before he does. This is a telling statement, we realize that Jackie, as of yet, has not begun to understand or contemplate issues of gender and sexuality. He does not really see the full implications of the scene he is witnessing, though he is beginning to have an inkling, or a budding curiosity, about things hovering in the darkness, outside the illuminated places. Jackie is just starting to differentiate and separate himself from his parents; his worst fear at this juncture is being alone in life.

Comprehension begins to dawn, however, that the nature of Jackie’s relationship with his parents is changing. He is losing his mother, not only through her departure, but because she is no longer the person that he has known. Even though he has physically remained with his father, things will never be the same between them, and he is metaphorically losing him as well. The father, in his failure to either prevent the mother from leaving, or to act definitively in the case of her lover, has been essentially emasculated.

“I had the feeling that he might’ve fallen inside, because he looked roughed up,” says Jackie, but in truth he has fallen not physically, but inside his being. He is not the man that he has been teaching Jackie to be, and thus when the mother leaves, Jackie realizes that he “was to be alone with his father.” This aloneness is not a shared state; they are both alone, though left in the same house. Jackie may physically be left with his father, but both have become solitary. His parents, though still very much alive, have figuratively died for him as parental figures, becoming not mother and father, but man and woman. Jackie is seeing authority that is no longer valid, as he becomes the one to reassure his father that it will “be all right,” no longer the son but a newly formed adult.

Act Three: The Epiphany of Self-Awareness

Essential to Jackie’s changing role into an identity independent from that of his parents, is the realization he makes that “we are all of us on our own in this.” Though this is the only time he explicitly states it, Ford uses the repeated imagery of cold to represent a state of aloneness. Though the cold has been present throughout the story, in the third act, as the resolution of the stories’ events takes place, the temperature is slowly dropping. We are reminded of the impending winter, or the retreat of each character into the hibernation of his or her own world. In the final segment, Jackie walks alone up the cold street, past the hotel where his father has sold his catch, past a deserted train yard, the loading dock “closed and locked.”

We see that he is both alone, and changed by the experience. The loading dock looks “small” to him, as things often do when we have suddenly changed on the inside; Jackie thinks that his life has “turned suddenly.” He has now experienced a rite of passage in which he is set adrift into the world, to navigate his own way through the travails of life without the aid of parents, as a person with a distinct identity, rather than as the son of his mother and father.

Jackie ultimately has unanswered questions, things that only his parents can tell him, yet he reveals that he has not over the years sought the answers. The truth is that the answers would be answers for his mother and father only; Jackie himself has learned that he must wrestle his own explanation and understanding of the events that occurred. He has realized that he is alone in his feeling, in comprehension, in his sense of meaning.

Though he may continue to have a relationship with his parents, he is alone with the responsibility of gaining personal understanding, even of shared events, just as every person is. This is essentially the human condition, though we may witness the same scenes as others, we must interpret them alone. It is a rite of passage to come to this understanding, one that may be, as in Jackie's case, spurred on by confronting issues of sexuality, authority and identity. Ultimately, though there may be heartbreak in the understanding, or the cold of isolation or loneliness, life and it’s events are part of a very personal drama. The play of life has infinite variation for each player, and Jackie has taken a definitive step into manhood in gaining this realization, no matter the events that precipitated this harsh epiphany on the workings of the world.

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Comments 3 comments

guest 4 years ago

Fantastic explanation. Thank you so much for this!

Micheal 22 months ago

I've been loiokng for a post like this for an age

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James September 16 months ago from Philippines

It is a good thing to know I have found a great article like this. Congratulations.

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